KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — When it comes to the future of the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport, David Reid sees clear skies.
Passenger air traffic is up, the new airport director told the Kalamazoo Gazette (http://bit.ly/1nM0RmK ). The airport is self-sustaining. The business community is engaged with helping its growth. And the facility, three years after opening its new terminal building, is planning for more growth.
“We’ve always had a strong market here in Kalamazoo as far as the need for air service,” said Reid, 45, who was named permanent director of the airport in February after serving on an interim basis since September.
With a cluster of high-profile corporate users such as Stryker Corp., Pfizer Inc. and Kellogg Co., he said, “I think the corporate market has driven the need for air service here ... for our size town, we have quite a presence here.”
He mentioned Kalamazoo’s long history with flight, including its support of the Western Michigan University School of Aviation, the Air Zoo and, years ago, the Kalamazoo International Air Show.
“Our overall traffic is up 3 percent from last year,” Reid said. “That tends to show people are using us more, and that’s both business and leisure.”
Passenger traffic for April, alone, rose 10 percent, according to the airport’s Market Share Report for that month. There were 22,875 passenger trips to and from the local airport in April, up from 20,518 in April of 2013.
Reid said in the past several years, as the economic recession of 2008 caused many families to cut their budget for leisure travel and forced companies to eliminate some business trips, air travel declined and the airport had to dig into its financial reserves to make ends meet. But revenues have balanced expenditures over the past couple of years.
The airline industry changed significantly after Sept. 11, 2001, and the economic downturn also has meant lots of change, Reid said.
“The biggest impact over the last six to eight years,” he said, “is the fuel cost.”
Airlines have worked to reduce the number of aircraft they use and cut back on the number of flights. And flights are more efficient from an operational standpoint, he said. Airlines here have improved their passenger capacity to about 80 percent per flight, compared to 50 percent a few years ago.
Kalamazoo’s airport has long been in an ongoing fight for passengers with airports in Grand Rapids, Chicago, Detroit and South Bend, Ind., which often can offer lower prices.
“Our biggest leakage is to Detroit and Chicago and then to Grand Rapids,” Reid said. In polling, “leakage” is an assessment of individuals living or working here whose business “leaks” to other airports.
The main complaint of travelers who are vocal about the local airport is that air fares are more expensive to and from Kalamazoo and they are willing to drive to other cities to cut costs.
However, they may not be saving as much money as they think, Reid said.
He said a big part of the airport’s marketing approach is to dispel the idea that it is always cheaper to fly from other airports.
“They (air fares) are becoming more in line with other airports in our region,” Reid said. “The cost and the inconvenience to drive to some of these other airports — the gap in price — is not enough to take (cover) that inconvenience.
“Our message is that we are their hometown airport and we are close,” Reid said. “We are convenient. We have a very relaxed environment here at the airport. It’s a very pleasurable flying experience usually when you go through Kalamazoo. Our TSA check lines are very short. Customer service levels are high and it’s just a more convenient and better flight out of Kalamazoo.”
Business travelers have complained about the reliability of connecting flights, primarily on return trips to Kalamazoo. They say it causes problems when they fly and when they are flying visitors into Kalamazoo.
“I have a 50/50 chance of my return flights being cancelled,” said attorney Phillip Torrence, a frequent flyer who travels nationally and internationally on business.
While he described the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport as “very nice” and “very easy and user friendly,” he said, “It is a very difficult airport to fly into. Very unpredictable.”
Reid said, “We have heard similar comments from our traveling public, and this staff understands this concern. Kalamazoo is not alone in dealing with this issue, as many of our neighboring airports experience this struggle as well. Because of this, improving the air service for our community remains a top priority. This involves working closely with our airline partners to expand route options and frequency.”
Asked what needs to be improved at the airport, business people have said they want more flights to other cities.
Reid said expanding air service here is always a goal. But he said airlines don’t serve the airport, they serve the community where the airport is located. To expand service, they need to understand what the community wants and has the capacity to support.
“My job is to get a good feel for the community to determine what our community needs,” he said.
In late April, Reid attended Sixtel Consulting Group’s Western Airports Conference in Tulsa, Okla., where he talked to airlines about expanding the number of cities they serve to and from Kalamazoo. Affiliates of Delta Airlines and American Airlines are the commercial airlines that currently serve the Kalamazoo airport.
“I spoke with Delta, the new American/USAir group (called Envoy), Frontier Airlines and a charter company,” he said.
He presented them with market studies that illustrate the potential of the Kalamazoo market. Among other things, local officials would like to expand the success of Delta’s Saturday direct flights to Atlanta into a schedule that has direct flights there on multiple days of the week.
Direct flights to and from Atlanta, operated by Delta Connection with a 50-seat regional jet, began on Feb. 15. Reid said the flights have consistently been 80 to 100 percent full. But, he said, despite working in the world of supersonic jets, nothing happens too quickly with the airlines.
“It’s a complicated process but in the final analysis, you’ve got to take your story and tell it to the prospective airlines,” said Gil Collver, chairman of the Kalamazoo Aeronautics Board of Trustees.
Expanding air service is the first of several priorities Reid and Collver see for the airport. The others include:
— Extending the main runway — The Kalamazoo County Aeronautics Board anticipates a need to expand — by at least 500 feet — the longest of the airport’s three runways, which is 6,502 feet. That needs to be done to accommodate changes airlines are expected to make in the size of aircraft they use.
“The regional jet industry is changing their fleet look,” Reid said. Collver said the number of departures and arrivals at the airport has declined, but the number of seats aboard each plane has increased as airlines try to become more efficient and use larger planes. How long the runway needs to be depends on what type of planes the air carriers gravitate toward.
Planning for the runway extension will occur over the next few years and the project itself will be a federally funded project, Collver said.
— Developing adjacent land — Airport management is close to obtaining federal funding to purchase about 68 acres of unused Pfizer property south by southwest of the airport. What’s the plan?
“To develop that land and expand our general aviation and corporate foot print,” Reid said.
He said the Kalamazoo area has a very large general aviation population — people who own their own planes. And he said general aviation traffic accounts for about 75 percent of all airport operations.
Of the 100 hangars the airport leases, only one was available to rent in early May. The airport hopes to link the additional land with its existing air field. It could be used to attract individuals or businesses who want to do such things as build hangars, establish light manufacturing or repair services for aircraft, or operate a freight airline service, Reid and Collver said.
About 90 percent of the money necessary for the $1.29 million land purchase ($1.16 million) is expected from the federal Airport Improvement Program, 5 percent ($64,500) from the state and 5 percent from revenues generated by the airport.
“We’re in the process of application,” Reid said. “We are awaiting federal approval for that.”
It is expected in mid to late summer.
— Put the old air terminal building to use — Reid said the Airport Aeronautics Board is working to determine what it will do with the old airport terminal building. It may have to demolish the 75,000-square-foot structure at some point if it is unable to find an aeronautical use or user for it. (The new terminal building has about 95,000 square feet.)
“We’re starting to discuss options,” said Collver. “What can we do? What might be reasonable? ...You’d almost have to look at what has happened in similarly situated airports.”
Because the old building was built with federal funding, the FAA requires that it continue to be used to support air travel, he said.
“We want to exhaust every opportunity to use that building,” Reid said.
Possible uses include space for businesses that maintain aircraft, charter aircraft or provide other services for the flying public, including fueling and flight instruction.
— Increase community involvement “The best way the airport can serve the community is with air service and the best way to get (more) service in here is to know what our community wants,” Reid said. “Being involved is how we get to know the community and what it wants.”
Collver said, “I’m really excited about the amount of participation we’ve gotten from the business community, the Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Michigan First. We’ve got that Air Retention Services Committee (formed about three years ago), operated by movers and shakers - people who understand how important it (air service) is to the economic development.”
Information from: Kalamazoo Gazette, http://www.mlive.com/kalamazoo